How Green Is Too Green?

Bulldozers. Pesticides. Fertilizers. If you live in South Florida, golf's threat to the ecosystem might get you teed off.

Anyone who wants an illustration of the incongruity of human settlement in Miami need only look as far as La Gorce Country Club the day after a heavy rainfall. To see the posh club's fastidiously manicured eighteen-hole golf course a couple of feet under water is to realize that despite man's best efforts to control it, nature will, in the end, have its way.

The course is carved into one of Miami Beach's ritziest neighborhoods. When the organization's members decided to redesign their links in 1994 ("To help the image of the club," explains general manager Darren Betz), they called on one of the world's greatest golfers and most prominent course designers, Jack Nicklaus, who practiced on those same fairways during his childhood. La Gorce shelled out $2.5 million for Nicklaus's efforts and got a splendid new facility -- on clear days. After a rain, though, it's another story; the course acquires a lake-belt of new water hazards and is difficult to play without a flat-bottom skiff.

"I wouldn't say it's a problem," posits Betz. "It's just a fact of life." He is being a little disingenuous: The situation is so displeasing that La Gorce has entered into legal arbitration proceedings against Nicklaus's firm, Golden Bear International, Inc., and Paragon Golf Construction, the contractors who rebuilt the course. But in his attempt to tone down the seriousness of the issue, Betz does inadvertently hit on the crux of the matter: Around here, flooding is indeed a fact of life. More to the point, most of Dade was once under water.

La Gorce is a reminder that in South Florida we live in the natural ecosystem but too often in defiance of it. Here the groundwater, our sole source of drinking water, is literally inches beneath our feet, and anything we pour or spill on the ground may well wind up there. The housing developments on our western flank are back-yard-to-hammock with the Everglades; to the east our condos cast afternoon shadows on the Atlantic. We're here only by elaborate contrivances -- drainage canals, levees, air-conditioning, and sunblock.

Golf courses are no exception. Because they are green, they seem innocuous, but their threat to the ecosystem is more insidious than, say, a housing development in Kendall, where the battle line between man and nature is so clearly delineated. Historically, golf courses have been anathema to the environment: They use a tremendous amount of water for irrigation, disturb native soil and wildlife habitats, affect natural hydrology, increase stormwater runoff, and require an array of fertilizers and pesticides that pose a risk of contamination to both surface water and groundwater.

The fact that golf is not a naturally occurring phenomenon may come as a surprise to some in South Florida, where the sport is something of a religion and where 270 courses dapple the landscape. (Dade alone boasts 44, according to the Jupiter, Florida-based National Golf Foundation, a nonprofit trade association.) Here, as much as anywhere else in the U.S., golf and nature coexist in an extremely uncomfortable marriage, with the sport having the upper -- and more destructive -- hand. A debate between environmentalists and golfers about this awkward relationship has ensnared the sport around the world. But in South Florida, bastion of duffers and a unique and vulnerable ecosystem, the factions have been curiously quiet.

Once in a while, and usually in the very early morning or late afternoon, a man emerges from a warehouse hidden in the trees behind the seventeenth hole at the Golf Club of Miami. Wearing a full-length protective jumpsuit, gloves, and a respirator strapped to his face, he plods over to a small storage closet that reeks of chemical fumes and is filled with containers and sacks labeled with names like Orthene and MSMA 6.6 and Mancur and Sencor and Daconil 2787. Carefully measuring out small amounts of the substances, he mixes them with water in a three-gallon tank, which he straps to his back and hauls onto the course.

He's going to kill stuff.
Depending on the day and circumstances, his intended victims might be insects, fungi, or weeds, an array of life forms that threaten to corrupt the lush aesthetic of the golf course. Sometimes a three-gallon tank isn't enough to subdue the enemy, in which case a 150-gallon tank on wheels, equipped with a sixteen-foot spray boom, is deployed. Other times, when nourishment is the order of the day, a small tractor is pressed into service, pulling a large funnellike apparatus that sprays chemical fertilizer 40 feet in every direction.

Such practices go on at nearly all of the world's golf courses and are generally considered a necessary part of the game. But it is precisely this mindset that enrages environmentalists, who fear that all those chemicals will leach through the grass and soil into the groundwater, or wash into nearby surface water, and wreak havoc on the ecosystem.

Course superintendents say there's no cause for alarm if the chemicals are properly applied. "It's very important you follow the label," notes Earl Grey, an agronomy consultant for the county-owned Golf Club of Miami in northwest Dade. He and his fellow superintendents always weigh a number of factors, including area of application, time of day, and weather: Is it too close to a lake? How many hours should pass before golfers can play through? Will it rain and wash away all the chemicals before they can take effect? The selection alone is daunting: According to Grey, about twenty different insecticides, twenty to twenty-five fungicides, and ten to fifteen herbicides are in common use. "This is such a science, you know?" he says. "But I only use what I have to use to control the situation," he adds quickly. "I'm not an eradicator."

The folks at the Golf Course of Miami are particularly sensitive to this issue: The only documented local fish-kill in recent memory that was positively tied to golf-course maintenance occurred at the club.

It happened between July 7 and 8, 1993 (before Grey and the current management took over the operation). The course's lakes and ponds were clogged with thousands of deceased large-mouth and peacock bass, mullet, and shad, some with their eyes bulging from their sockets. An investigation by county scientists determined that the fish had died after heavy overnight rains washed pesticides from the course into the water. The assassin chemical was Nemacure, which is used to kill worms that feed on grass roots. According to the investigators, golf course workers had legally applied the pesticide the day before but had not counted on rain.

Judith Nothdurft, manager of agricultural waste programs at Dade's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM), says several other fish-kills reported on or near golf courses haven't been conclusively tied to pesticide use on the courses themselves. They took place in November 1994, when about 1000 fish -- bass and bream -- died in a lake at the Presidential Country Club in North Miami Beach; in April 1995, when 150 tilapia were found floating in one of the five lakes at the Briar Bay Golf Course in southwest Dade; and in August 1995, when DERM investigators observed fish-kills in three separate lakes at the Costa Del Sol Golf Course in northwest Dade, including 300 sunfish in one lake alone.

In a more recent investigation, DERM scientists discovered elevated levels of arsenic (a metal found in a commonly used golf course herbicide) in the soil and groundwater at Bayshore Golf Course, a city-owned facility in Miami Beach. According to DERM records, one sample contained nearly five times the federally permitted level of the chemical. "Due to the levels, it's assumed the arsenic is due to pesticide application," Nothdurft says. This past December DERM referred the case to state environmental regulators for further investigation.

DERM issues a so-called agricultural-waste operating permit to all local golf courses in order to regulate maintenance and chemical storage; officials conduct annual inspections to ensure compliance. But Nothdurft says inspectors don't routinely sample the surface and ground waters on the course; in most cases, only a visible red flag (such as a spill, or dead wildlife) will prompt sampling. Growing concern, however, has prompted DERM, in conjunction with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, to conduct a study that will measure the migration of pesticides and fertilizers through golf course turf and soil, and the chemicals' impact on groundwater. Scheduled to begin within the next month, the study involves the sinking of monitoring wells on five local courses.

While the project will be the first of its kind for Dade's unique hydrological system, there's no dearth of tests and experiments from elsewhere in the nation, which industry boosters and environmentalists alike haul around with them like bags of clubs. "Golf courses are green graveyards," declares David Dilworth, an environmental activist in Carmel, California, and one of the most vocal opponents of golf courses. In their effort to quantify the industry's overreliance on chemicals, Dilworth and his allies are quick to cite a 1991 study conducted by the New York Attorney General's Office that examined pesticide use on Long Island courses: Investigators found that on a per-acre basis the courses deployed as much as seven times the amount of pesticides used by the agriculture industry.

Environmentalists also point to a recent study funded by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, which found a high rate of cancer among supers. Researchers from the University of Iowa studied the mortality records of 618 superintendents who died between 1970 and 1992 and saw elevated incidences of cancer of the lung, brain, large intestine, and prostate, as well as non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. (Contends Jeff Bollig, spokesman for the superintendents association: "I'm not going to say the study was flawed, but it was limited. It didn't take into account a lot of variables, such as whether you were an alcoholic or whether you smoked or whether your family had a high cancer rate.")

In response to the charges that their courses are awash in liquid death, golf spokesmen point to their own research. The United States Golf Association (USGA), the sport's largest U.S. organization, trumpets its $12.5 million worth of funding for 98 studies at 33 universities. This science, the association claims, demonstrates that where fertilizers and pesticides are properly selected and applied, the environmental impact is minimal or nil.

For months Melreese Golf Course has looked like the stage set for a Lawrence of Arabia remake: a vast expanse of rolling white sand dunes. Less than a year ago the 137-acre plot was a relatively flat eighteen-hole greenscape. During the past year, though, as part of a $3.9 million redesign undertaken to improve the course, workers killed the old grass, ripped out scores of trees, and reconfigured the water hazards. Having carted in 150,000 tons of sandy topsoil and shoved it around with bulldozers to form the current desertscape, workers recently began cultivating a lush blanket of Bermuda grass.

"Essentially it's a completely different golf course than before," boasts James Mahannah, vice president of Mark Mahannah Company, the architectural firm that redesigned the City of Miami-owned facility. "You'll get out there," he promises, "and you won't know you're in South Florida."

Golf has its roots in seaside Scotland, where courses were -- and still are -- laid out along the natural contours of the land, with little modification. But as the sport grew in popularity and engineering improved, courses have been hacked out of almost any environment -- from mountainsides to deserts to swamps.

The USGA would have you believe that golf courses are God's little acres. Log on to the organization's Website and behold the splendid product of its well-oiled PR machinery: Under a special "Green Section" heading, visitors are invited to explore several environment-related pages such as "What Happens to Pesticides Applied to Golf Courses?" and "Key Environmental Messages." One page is illustrated with a photograph of a pair of deer nibbling near a greenside bunker. "Do Golf Courses Pollute the Environment?" another page asks. (Answer: "No, they do not.")

Golf industrialists have good reason to make sure they're wearing a little bit of prominently displayed green: about $20 billion worth. By the estimates of the National Golf Foundation, 25 million people play 490 million rounds of golf each year on the nation's 15,390 courses. And during the first half of this decade, developers were building an average of 255 new golf courses per year.

To the industry's credit, the past few years have seen what appears to be a genuine attempt to make courses and management practices more environmentally friendly. The American Society of Golf Course Architects brags about recent efforts to build new golf courses on ravaged land such as abandoned mines and landfills, and it touts the eco-friendliness of its members in a glossy booklet entitled "An Environmental Approach to Golf Course Development." The Golf Course Superintendents Association, too, asserts that its members are ahead of the environmental curve and its scientists are studying new methods of maintaining courses with fewer chemicals and less water.

In a watershed event, golfers and environmentalists gathered at two Golf & the Environment symposia (one in 1995 and the second in 1996) to discuss their lack of rapport. "We thought there was a real need for this in the golf community," explains Roger Schiffman, executive editor of Golf Digest magazine, which convened the weekend conferences along with the National Wildlife Federation and the Center for Resource Management, a nonprofit conflict-resolution firm based in Salt Lake City. "The environmentalists and the golf community were at real odds with each other. Environmentalists were holding up golf courses, suing local builders and local operators. The golf course builders and architects became quite anti-environmental. They saw environmentalists holding up the future of golf."

The summits produced a slender booklet titled "Environmental Principles for Golf Courses in the United States," which establishes voluntary guidelines for the siting, construction, and maintenance of courses. It was endorsed by twenty environmental, golf, and governmental organizations.

These days it's difficult to find someone in the golfing industry who won't declare himself a nature lover. "Superintendents have been environmentalists before it was chic to be one," proclaims Dale Kuehner, director of golf maintenance at Colony West Country Club in Tamarac and president of the Florida chapter of the Golf Course Superintendents Association. "I'm out here twelve to thirteen hours a day, being outdoors and in the environment."

Adds Earl Grey, agronomy consultant for the Golf Club of Miami and a former manager of Indian Creek Country Club: "I'm a real environmentalist! I'm the type of guy who goes to Colorado and names all the hardwoods. My son is going to be an environmental engineer; my daughter's a member of Greenpeace. She doesn't eat veal! Is that good enough?"

Some environmental activists regard this sort of chatter as pretense. Mark Massara is an environmental attorney in San Francisco, director of the Sierra Club Coastal Program and an anti-golf diehard. He was the Sierra Club's representative at the Golf & the Environment summits and was the only participant whose organization refused to endorse the principles. "At least 50 people from the Sierra Club commented on these proposed principles, and it was near unanimous that they weren't strong enough," says Massara. "It was a good first step, but we were looking for something that would result in some kind of action, not confuse decisionmakers by having real estate developers stand up and say, 'I've designed a golf course that follows these principles and was therefore endorsed by the Sierra Club!' That was a real concern."

Indeed, the principles, while well-meaning, are legally toothless. ("Respect designated environmentally sensitive areas within the course," for example, and "Support maintenance practices that protect wildlife and natural habitat.") The Sierra Club, Massara says, is looking for long-term commitment, not short-term lip service.

Anti-golf activists are most concerned about the relentless construction of new courses. "It's runaway real estate speculation," proclaims Massara, who makes this radical demand: Impose a moratorium on new course construction and close courses in wetlands, along the coast, and near other sensitive ecosystems. Short of a moratorium, he says, new courses should be confined to previously degraded environments, such as landfills, quarries, and mines. Meanwhile, existing golf courses should go "cold turkey" on chemical use, drastically reduce water consumption, and allow the land to return to a more natural state. These measures would restore a long-lost modicum of wilderness to the game, the attorney argues. "What began with rugged outdoor types chasing a white ball across native terrain called 'links' has metamorphosed into something resembling a line of minivans at a drive-through fast-foot joint," he scoffs.

Golf Digest's Roger Schiffman has heard this cry for a return to nature but says it would require an unthinkable shift in the culture of the game. "The idea is to go back to the Scottish model and basically let nature take its course. If you've had a rainy summer, you basically have green fairways. If you don't have rain, then everything turns brown," he explains. "The problem is, we're used to the 'Augusta National Syndrome': The water's blue, the fairways are green. The course is primed so that it peaks during the week it's on television. And everyone wants their course to look like Augusta during the Masters tournament. What you don't know is that they have a huge, huge budget and the course is artificially maintained -- they dye the water blue!"

"You can talk environment and golf going hand-in-hand, but I think it's a bunch of bullshit."

In isolated sound bites, James Mahannah makes those West Coast anti-golf activists sound positively spineless. The difference: He's arguing from the other side.

Slim as a two-iron and dressed neatly in a white polo shirt, jeans, and tasseled loafers, the 31-year-old golf course engineer and designer sits at the conference table of his father's small Boca Raton firm, blueprints spooled out before him. (The Mahannah golf pedigree runs deep: James's grandfather -- whose name the company bears -- was a golf-course designer; his father Charles is the chief architect for all of golf pro Lee Trevino's courses. The Mahannahs are partners with Jeffrey Schnars in the business.)

"A lot of these golf course designers are just patting themselves on the back," Mahannah rails, jabbing the air with an eight-penny nail, which he alternately uses as a pointer and a toothpick. "I think you can incorporate some environmental concerns into golf, but what do you do when you blow a side of a mountain down to build a course? As far as incorporating nature trails and habitats -- when you step foot in it, you've hurt it! Pesticides and blowing down mountains aren't really good for the environment. That's my opinion."

To Mahannah's way of thinking, you build the golf course and corrupt the environment, or you don't build the golf course and protect the environment. You can't do both. "Wetlands are pretty, but you're not going to improve the wetlands already there," he declares. "You got these guys saying they're going to incorporate the environment and they show all these footbridges cutting through the wetlands -- what the hell is that?" Of course, he knows part of the answer to that question: politics. It helps to placate activists and regulators by at least demonstrating the pretense of environmental sensitivity, he says. "When I'm talking to regulators, I'll tell them my designer is the greatest environmentalist alive!" admits Mahannah, whose company actually created a small cypress wetland in the crook of the dogleg sixth hole at Melreese.

Mahannah is a little irritable these days when it comes to matters of the environment. He's fed up with the regulatory hoops he's had to jump through to complete the Melreese redesign: The environmental regulations in Dade County are the strictest he's ever had to contend with, he says. (The firm has also built courses around the U.S., as well as in Canada, the Bahamas, Mexico, Taiwan, and is currently building facilities in Costa Rica, Vietnam, and Bogota.) The specific measure that rankles him is a rule that dictates how the course can dispose of its stormwater. DERM requires that the first inch of rainwater runoff -- which contains most of the pollutants -- be collected before the remainder is allowed to drain into on-site lakes. It's a standard requirement for all local developments but is particularly important on golf courses.

All courses designed or redesigned in Dade since 1980 have been bound by the regulation. In fact, environmental regulations in general make it much more difficult to build or alter golf courses these days. For example, the county-owned Crandon Park Golf Course was carved out of a mangrove swamp in 1972. Construction of that course would never be permitted today, if only because mangroves are now legislatively protected.

But while the regulation may infuriate designers, it has a limited effect on the county's existing courses: Environmental regulators can't arbitrarily force old courses to modernize. According to DERM engineer Elie Mehu, regulators can force a golf course to revamp its drainage system and design only if they can prove conclusively that the current system is contaminating the environment. To date, no one has conducted a comprehensive biological or engineering survey of Dade's antiquated courses to determine whether they are in violation of environmental laws.

To comply with the stormwater management rules for the Melreese redesign, the Mahannahs designed for Melreese a system of so-called exfiltration trenches that hold the first inch of water and allow it to drain through the soil, theoretically filtering out the impurities. In addition, they created berms around the lakes and along the bank of the Tamiami Canal, which borders the north edge of the course, to divert runoff away from the water bodies and toward the drains.

While he has gone along with the county, Mahannah isn't convinced any of the extra engineering efforts were worth it. "I don't have a biology background, but the science is a little tenuous," he insists. "I haven't seen any studies." By his reckoning, the city and county should have been happy with whatever his firm gave them. The previous incarnation of Melreese was "a dump," he grumbles: The ponds were practically dead, trash was buried in the ground. "When we dug down we found baby dolls, metal, people's shoes," he snaps. "Anything I do is a plus!"

What Mahannah is most upset about is that DERM's stringent regulations restricted his father's creative expression, robbing him of the option to "blend" fairways into the water hazards and create a smoother look. Furthermore, the money he shelled out for the drainage system -- $100,000 -- could have been used for aesthetic touches such as landscaping and bulkheading around the lakes. "I don't want any tree controlling our design," he says. "Golf before the environment, that's what my dad would say. We'll be sitting on our principles starving."

The three other Dade courses that have been redesigned under the county's stormwater restrictions are the La Gorce Country Club, the Golf Club of Miami, and Deering Bay. One is a success, the other two failures.

Instead of employing a system of exfiltration trenches for the La Gorce redesign, Jack Nicklaus and his Golden Bear designers created retention areas on the perimeter of the course. The theory holds that the shallow marshy depressions would fill with water during big rainfalls; the first inch of water would drain into the turf and soil, which would filter out the pollutants as the water percolated into the aquifer; water beyond that first polluted inch would flow through pipes into the course's lakes.

Good theory, bad execution. After Nicklaus reworked the course, neighbors peppered the country club with phone calls and letters complaining that the retention ponds stank, water was overflowing into the back yards that bordered the course, and mosquitoes and reptiles were multiplying (including, according to a representative from a neighborhood homeowners' association, one particularly venomous breed of toad that is "causing small household animals to die").

According to a DERM engineer, the problem results from a combination of ills, including undersize drainage pipes and deviations from the original design. (Says David Heatwole, Golden Bear's lead designer on the La Gorce project: "There were [flooding] problems before and we tried to help alleviate that with the new design. There are still some problems. They had a good course, and now we think they have a better course. Hopefully the thing will be settled and we can all move on.")

A similar situation has plagued the Golf Club of Miami, which underwent a redesign in 1989. According to the course's agronomy consultant Earl Grey, who is also a member of the team that took over management of the course in 1994, the links were built two feet too low and will require the addition of a couple of pumps to handle the water that floods the course after heavy rainfalls.

Those are the flops. At the other end of the county, in the plush condominium hideaway of the Deering Bay Yacht & Country Club on the edge of Biscayne Bay, legendary golfer Arnold Palmer's redesign of the old King's Bay course has been praised by golfers and environmentalists alike. To be fair to Nicklaus, Palmer had it a little easier: While prohibited from draining into the bay, he was permitted to divert stormwater directly into the course's ponds rather than into a retention area like La Gorce or through an exfiltration system a la Melreese. This is because, according to Elie Mehu, the groundwater beneath the course is so brackish it would never be used as a source of drinking water; therefore, it requires a lower level of protection.

But Palmer went well beyond what was required: He created several wetlands on the course; he dug a mangrove-lined channel connecting an inland lagoon to the bay, providing a migratory route for fish and other aquatic life; and he implemented a water-recycling system whereby rainwater that drains into the course's ponds is used for irrigation. In addition, stormwater runoff from the townhouses and condos in the development is channeled into the course's drainage and irrigation system. Ringed by mangrove trees, the course teems with wildlife. The Tropical Audubon Society conducts bird-spotting tours of the area; crocodiles patrol its ponds.

Says Rick Alleman, senior environmental scientist for the South Florida Water Management District: "I could justify playing golf there!"

But Deering Bay is only one course. And aside from DERM's regulators, who are primarily focused on new construction and potential redesigns, no one seems to be questioning golf's impact on South Florida's environment. While the environmental debate rages in other parts of the country and around the world -- a Tokyo-based international group called the Global Anti-Golf Movement, or GAG'M, claims to have stopped the construction of hundreds of golf courses in the Far East -- South Florida has remained a rancor-free bastion for the golf industry.

Some preliminary sense of the threat to the local ecosystem should emerge from the upcoming county/state monitoring-well survey of the aquifer beneath five golf courses. Golf advocates aren't at all worried: An ongoing USGA-funded study at the University of Florida, they say, has demonstrated the effectiveness of turf as a sponge for filtering out chemicals.

Anne Leslie, a chemist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Atlanta, certifies these findings -- sort of. "This is the advantage that turf gives: Grass is a tremendous absorber of whatever chemicals you put down," she says. "Very little gets through to the groundwater."

Unless, she adds, the groundwater is near the surface.
Like in Dade County? "Well, yes," she ponders. "You could have some problems there."

During the past year, though, as part of a $3.9 million redesign undertaken to improve the course, workers killed the old grass, ripped out scores of trees, and reconfigured the water hazards. Having carted in 150,000 tons of sandy topsoil and shoved it around with bulldozers to form the current desertscape, workers recently began cultivating a lush blanket of Bermuda grass.

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